When Steve Ballmer leaves as Microsoft CEO, will he still be in charge?

Within a year Steve Ballmer will be gone as Microsoft CEO, but even when he leaves, he'll still have an outsized influence. After he leaves, will he become the power behind the throne?

A year ago, in his annual letter to shareholders, Ballmer detailed the company's devices-and-services strategy, a major shift away from its previous focus primarily on software. He wrote:

"This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves — as a devices and services company. It impacts how we run the company, how we develop new experiences, and how we take products to market for both consumers and businesses."

In this year's letter to shareholders, the last he will write as CEO, he reiterated his strategy, and made clear that no matter who takes the helm at Microsoft, that strategy will stay in place. Computerworld's Gregg Keizer reports:

The company has said that it plans to stick with the strategy swivel no matter who is appointed Ballmer's successor, a stance that has irritated some analysts but that was likely cemented when Microsoft announced last month that it would acquire parts of Finnish phone maker Nokia for $7.2 billion.

How can Ballmer ensure that his strategy will stay in place, even when he's no longer CEO? First, as Keizer points out, is that the Nokia acquisition forces Microsoft into the devices part of the strategy. With Nokia onboard, Microsoft has to become at least in part a devices company. In addition, Ballmer recently restructed Microsoft around the devices-and-services strategy. No new CEO will want to restructure the company so soon after the change.

Beyond that, Ballmer will be intimately involved in deciding who becomes his successor. You can be sure there will be plenty of discussion with potential hires about how to implement the strategy Ballmer put into place. It's not likely that the company will hire someone who disagrees with it.

Even when Ballmer leaves, he'll still be on the Microsoft board. He joined the board in 2000 when he was made CEO. Last week, the board recommended that Ballmer be re-elected, along with Gates. He will certainly be an active board member.

Finally, within a year, Ballmer will likely be Microsoft's biggest shareholder. Computerworld points out that Ballmer holds 4% of the company's shares, compared to 4.5% for Bill Gates. But because Gates sells approximately 80 million shares a year under a pre-set plan, within a year Ballmer will become Microsoft's biggest shareholder.

So even though Ballmer won't be CEO within a year, he'll still be the company's biggest stockholder, an active member of the board, will have helped handpick his successor, and will have locked that successor into his strategy because of the Nokia purchase and Microsoft restructuring. That spells plenty of influence, even if he's not CEO.

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